Jen Bryant, 55, of Glenmoore has penned more than 30 books for young readers, ranging from nonfiction picture books to novels in verse. Her most recent work, The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus, illustrated with vibrant multimedia art by Melissa Sweet, was awarded the Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal and was named a Caldecott Honor Book this year.
Given late last month at the American Library Association conference in San Francisco, the annual Sibert award is for the most distinguished U.S. children's informational book in English during the preceding year. It's administered by the Association for Library Service to Children. As we learn below, while the award ceremony was in June, Bryant actually learned she'd won much earlier.
How did it feel to win the Sibert Medal?
We have a Super Bowl party in our basement in Glenmoore. I was slicing hoagies when I got a call from Chicago, [home of the American Library Association]. I almost didn't answer it because I didn't recognize the number. I ran upstairs, because our guests were arriving, and started dancing around my office.
Why Roget? Why a picture book about words?
The thesaurus is so common to everyone, but no one had poked around in [Peter Mark Roget's] life and written about him for kids. He was fascinating. I actually stumbled across the topic by accident. My husband's family is in the Pittsburgh area, and I decided to go along on the visit. I thought I had thrown in a book from the library to read, but I had taken the thesaurus. ... It wasn't organized alphabetically, but by his own categories. That really introduced me to the person behind the book and triggered the rest of my research. There was a lot of trauma in [Roget's] family, a lot of transience. He started making these lists as something he could count on, like driving stakes in a tent to keep it from blowing away.
What drew you to picture book biographies?
[Children's book author Eileen Spinelli] pointed out the connection between the poetry that I was writing for magazines and the art of picture-book manuscripts. Jerry [Spinelli] was also extremely helpful. Also, coming from the poetry angle, I began to write novels in verse, using individual poems collectively to tell a whole narrative, like in The Trial [about the 1935 Lindbergh baby kidnapping].
How do you get into your young audience's mind-set?
I think remembering what it was like to read as a child emotionally is sort of a timeless practice that all children's authors sort of engage in, even if kids nowadays have smartphones and devices, and their lives are more organized than ours were. The emotional underpinnings of being a child are the same. It's important to remember that, so when you're writing for kids, you're not writing down to them.
I go to the local YMCA. There are conversations here and there at the mall and the grocery store. I have four younger nephews. I also do a lot of school visits. In between my presentations, I find out what they're reading and what they're doing. When I had a novel in verse, especially when [daughter Leigh] was in upper elementary, middle, high school, I would ask, "What strikes you? What do you like about this? What is unclear?"
Describe your collaborative process with illustrator Melissa Sweet.
[My publishers] chose Melissa Sweet for the [2008 book A River of Words] on William Carlos Williams. That book happened to win a Caldecott Honor. ... I don't advise her or tell her what to do during the illustrative process. She has my finished manuscript in front of her, and she's making the artistic decisions for each page. The exception to that is when we were working on the [Horace] Pippin book: We went to the Brandywine River Museum. . . . She goes back to her studio in Maine and does her art separately.
Your favorite moments from "The Right Word": The two-page London street scene spread in which a chimney sweep says, "Do you need your chimney cleaned, swept, swabbed?" Bryant comments: "Roget really understands people and that they speak differently depending on their background."
Which picture books did she read as a child? Books by Dr. Seuss (Green Eggs and Ham) and P.D. Eastman (Put Me in the Zoo or Go, Dog, Go!), and Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are.
Who are some of her favorite children's authors now?